Source-powered FPS-RTS hybrid Nuclear Dawn - which was once a mod and is now a full-blown commercial release - hits its closed beta next week, with a release scheduled for just month after that. Intrigued by the sci-fi imagery and talk of clever commander-led FPS team combat dynamics, we decided to speak to Interwave Studios's Igor Raffaele about the project. He told us about their plans for free DLC, and explained what challenges lay ahead for the game after two years of commercial development. Also check out the trailer, below.
RPS: Before we get into details of what's going on with Nuclear Dawn, why don't you tell us who you are and what you role is on the project?
Raffaele: Igor Raffaele. I am the general manager at Interwave, but my role has been design. I helped design the game, set up the classes, that sort of thing.
RPS: And how did you come to be involved with the project?
Raffaele: I joined only when Nuclear Dawn's development was picked up as a commercial project. When Interwave decided to make that happen I came on board as part of the team. So I've only been involved for two and half years, while the project itself has been in existence for longer. We instantly saw the potential here, not just the awesome name, but everything else that went with it. That potential was what lead me to become involved with it.
RPS: So what have the last couple of years meant?
Raffaele: The last couple of years have, due to this being the first AAA project we have worked on, been an enormous learning experience for everyone involved. There's the usual take of innocence: we wanted vehicle and so many classes, and so many weapons, and different uniforms, and we soon realised that you cannot develop everything you set out to do. But despite this the process has been incredible, and we have been busy learning from our own mistakes, working out what is possible, what is realistic, and so on.
RPS: So what have you had to discard, and what have you achieved that you didn't expect?
Raffaele: I would say we have achieved a surprising amount of things. The game itself, the basic mechanic of an FPS and RTS working independently and together at a new level is a major achievement. It's hard to explain in just a sentence why we think it is different from any other similar game, but we rebuilt the genre from a unique perspective - our perspective - and that influences everything from how the classes are set up, to the interaction with the environment, the interaction with other players, and so personally I feel that is our strongest achievement, over anything we have left out: the game is there, it is challenging, it is interesting.
What we did leave out we are planning to introduced later in free DLCs, because we hate the having to pay for extra content thing, will be advanced AI. Players will be able to use bots as soldiers, so the commanders can play with AI bots under his control. We want to create a mode where commanders can play exclusively with bots, and even an AI commander. That was a big chunk we had to rip out because it was not fun. We could have tried to shoehorn something in for release, but we think there no point in even trying unless it is going to be fun.
So AI was the major hit, but we have also postponed some more advanced game modes, which will now feature in in a DLC. We will catch up with the original design over time, in both those aspects. We also had vehicles - physics driven vehicles within Source - but we had to leave those aside. They worked, but their network performance was dreadful, and when we went to look at what this was, we realised why Valve hadn't done it in any of their games: we'd had to have rewritten a major chunk of the netcode, and you're looking at about six months for a couple of programmers to make that work, so vehicles were set aside!
RPS: Okay let's talk a bit more about the details of Nuclear Dawn's FPS/RTS hybrid play. How do you sum it up?
Raffaele: That's very straightforward. As an FPS player you choose from the classes: you have a heavy guy in armour, you have the regular soldier guy, you have the tiny dude (or girl, depending on faction) that turns invisible and backstabs, and you have the medic/repair guy. The way these interact means that certain classes are much better at killing others with specific weapons, and that generates a gameplay where players are constantly forced to assess their class and equipment, and whether that is right for the job they are faced with. We want to move away from the "I'm just a sniper guy" sort of class mentality that some games encourage. Classes are - when you apply yourself to the game, at least - tools. You learn that if there is an exo-rush - loads of the big armoured guys coming at your base - you will go stealth to take some of them out. You will know you can't stick as a regular guy with a machinegun!
Of course players are called upon to capture resource points, and they do this for the commander. The commander is just a regular player, and he is elected at the start of rounds. People are not forced to deal with the RTS section, and a player chooses whether he wants to be considered for election. The RTS role is completely separate. It's totally separate from the FPS section of the game, and it's a complex RTS. When you entered the command console you are taken to a high level RTS command interface, just as you get in Starcraft or any other RTS you may be familiar with. Commanders advance the base, build fortifications, forward spawn points, artillery, or anything else that will help their players get across the map and destroy the enemy base.
Soldiers can ignore the commander, of course, but because of the tactical elements we have built into the game you will need commander support to get through some of the challenges the map has. Whether it is the commander unlocking the siege weapons for you, or the players capturing resources for the commander, neither of the two roles can fully develop without support from the other. That is one of the core elements that we have changed from the way this kind of works: the FPS and RTS elements might be separate experiences, but in play they are designed from the ground up to interact with each other.
RPS: So what is the challenge that remains for you now that the game is mostly in place?
Raffaele: Well truly 99% of the game features are in place. We have done several strict rounds of balancing, and the game is all there, and it is fully playable. Our challenge now is making players aware of what is actually going on in game. I think this is something that we underestimated: the challenge of what are you supposed to be doing? What could you be doing? What is the commander telling? Could you be doing that later, and something else now? We are on our fifth major UI revision, and I think we are on the final run now. This is the stuff that you take for granted as a player, because you only ever really notice it if breaks down!
RPS: So what's the plan for the roll out of the game then?
Raffaele: The game is on pre-order on Steam, and we going to start a closed beta on the 25th of August - scary! - anyone who pre-orders will get a 10% discount and access to the beta, obviously. We're planning some little bonuses. We announced today that players who ordered before the beta will get a veteran medal in game, which is a little thankyou from us for having faith in our idea and supporting us even before the game was playable. There is no embargo on this beta, by the way, we will be encouraging people to talk about their experiences, take screenshots, videos, and so on. Although there will be a beta watermark in there to say it's not the finished product!
It's quite exciting, because all the systems that we have refined over the past couple of years - often by just getting the wrong! - have finally found a balance that everyone is happy with, and that is now going to hit a new wave of players with their own ideas about what should be going on in game. And that's going to be exciting.
RPS: So you mentioned some free DLCs, what's the plan for the game after launch? Any plans?
Raffaele: As I briefly said before we have two major DLCs. We had to draw a line in the sand on some of that stuff because money was going to run out. But the game we set out to make needs those elements in order to be fully complete. So after release we will first deal with those bugs that appear under stress testing - although the game is very stable now - but when you hit this stress test you know bugs will appear. As far as community feedback is concerned we will monitor the beta closely. Games like Team Fortress became successful because they reacted to the requirements of players and even, in some visionary moments, anticipated them. So we are going to be listening to the community, and the later developing the DLCs. We will be hitting the ground hard after to release to bring the AI and advanced game modes to Nuclear Dawn.
RPS: Thanks for your time.